Want To Initiate Lasting Change? Consider This Best-Selling Wharton Professor’s Counterintuitive Approach


I’ve been a fan of Jonah Berger’s books since his inaugural effort, Contagious – Why Things Catch On. I’ve utilized Contagious, as well as Berger’s follow-up, Invisible Influence, in my UCSB Influence and Persuasion class for years.

Berger’s latest book (published March, 2020), The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, is a bit counterintuitive. He encourages entrepreneurs, and other change agents, to stop pushing people toward an intended change. Instead, he suggests they first examine why people haven’t previously modified their behavior and identify the barriers reducing their propensity to do so.

Catalysts Accelerate Change, In Business And Science

John Greathouse: Thanks for taking the time to connect Jonah. I’ve been a fan of your books for years – I was stoked when I heard about your latest book, The Catalyst. 

Jumping right in, you aptly point out that the first step toward initiating change is to determine the barriers which have precluded change in the first place. Do you have any tactical suggestions for entrepreneurs that will help them identify which structural challenges they should focus on and which may be beyond their reach?

Jonah Berger: Hey John, thanks for reaching out. I think a good place to start is to identify the problem, or do what I call, “Find the root.” If you go to a doctor’s office and you come in, the doctor didn’t just give you a splint for finger or a cast for your leg, they start by trying to figure out the problem is. “Why are you here in the first place and then I’ll prescribe the solution.”

Too often, entrepreneurs jump right to the solution, my product or service, rather than thinking about, “What is the problem in the first place?” If you’ve ever weeded a garden, you probably know that the fastest way to weed a garden is to tear off the tops… but you come back a couple weeks later and the weeds are back. If you don’t tear them out by the root, they don’t go away.

So, it’s the same thing for entrepreneurs, you really need to find the root. What are the underlying issues or challenges that are preventing adoption of a product or service and how can you mitigate them? I think the customer journey can be useful here as well, thinking about the stages that people go through before they buy something. What are those stages and what barriers might prevent people from moving through the stages? 

I was working with a medium-sized B2B company a few years ago, a service company that makes software for helping people find machine parts and we started thinking, “What are the things that prevent people from using this new software?”

Obviously, awareness, people don’t know it exists, sure. Some people realize it exists, but they don’t believe it’ll work. Other people believe it’ll work but they don’t think they have the problem it is set out to solve. Other people believe it’ll work and that they have the problem but think it’s too expensive. Other people don’t think it’s too expensive but don’t know how to integrate with their existing software. Each of those are different barriers that might prevent usage that you can come up with different solutions for.

If the issue is integration, for example, maybe you have a white glove concierge service that comes in and does the integration for clients, so it doesn’t prevent them from adopting it. If pricing is an issue maybe you figure out a different pricing model. But pricing and white glove concierge service are two very different solutions that really depend on the underlying problem that they are trying to solve.

Greathouse: In Contagious, you mention the power of Triggers (reminders which make products, ideas, solutions top of mind, often influencing consumer behavior). I wonder if the constant references the novel coronavirus’ highly contagious nature has driven book sales. 

Berger: We’ve definitely seen a spike in sales in Contagious as a result of the coronavirus. Lots of people are both trying to figure out why things spread in general but also why ideas spread, so those triggers there have certainly helped. 

Greathouse: Of all the anecdotes and examples in The Catalyst, which are your favorites? Which do you think most readers will find the most counterintuitive or surprising?

Berger: I think the overarching idea of, “Stop pushing,” has been something a lot of people have resonated with. So often, we think about changing minds in terms of what’s counterintuitive to the book, we think it’s about pushing. Giving more reasons, giving more information. When I interviewed hundreds of leaders, from a variety of different organizations, the way people tend to approach change is by more information, more reasons. If I just push, push, push people, they will go.

This notion of removing barriers, I think people have found quite counterintuitive and quite surprising. You’ve got a chair in a room, if you push a chair, the chair goes in the right direction. If you push people, they push back. Another good way to think about it is a car on a hill. If your car isn’t going, you think you just need more gas. Sometimes we need to remove the parking brake. I think that idea of removing the parking brake, getting rid of those barriers or obstacles have been really powerful for people.

In terms of specific anecdotes or examples, I love the one about the Tide Pod challenge and how telling people not to eat Tide Pods led them to become more likely to eat them. The stories about getting people to quit smoking are quite amazing. Even a lot of the stories about uncertainty, they may not be as powerful, how we started shopping online, how free shipping sort of enabled eCommerce to happen. I think all of those are really exciting and interesting stories.

Greathouse: Entrepreneurs constantly act as agents of change with little to no resources, so books like The Catalyst are highly relevant. When you were planning The Catalyst, who did you envision as the ideal reader? Who do you think is best positioned to put your insights into practice? 

Berger: What’s so interesting in terms of (the), “Ideal reader,” I learned a lot after Contagious came out. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of companies and organizations from a variety of different industries. I found again and again they all had a similar problem, which is that everyone had something they wanted to change.

The folks in marketing or sales wanted to change consumer behavior, or customers’ or clients’ minds. Leaders wanted to change organizational cultures. Employees wanted to change their boss’ mind. Startups wanted to change industries – nonprofits wanted to change the world.

While certainly a reader for this book could be people in marketing, brand management or entrepreneurs that are running a small business that want to get people to buy their product or use their service. That’s certainly one audience. I think it’s just as important within organizations, for changing organizations, for getting people on board, for changing the minds’ of investors or colleagues or bosses and organizational culture as a whole – I think there’s really multiple audiences that this appeals to.

Greathouse: Entrepreneurs often must displace a legacy product with a new and better solution. In such cases, inertia can be a challenging barrier. Initiating change is the overarching theme discussed throughout The Catalyst, especially in the Uncertainty chapter. Do you have any specific tips, from the book or otherwise, for resource-constrained entrepreneurs who face entrenched incumbents with widely used, but inferior solutions?

Berger: I think that chapter of Uncertainty and the notion of “trial” is really powerful. If you look at a challenger brands, brands that have something really good to offer but aren’t doing well, there are usually two reasons. One, people just don’t know they exist, and two, they take that lack of awareness as a signal of quality. “Well, if I’ve never heard of you, you must not be very good. If you were that good, I would have heard of you.”

The problem is you might be better, but because there’s already an entrenched competitor, it’s hard to get people to switch. So that idea of trial, saying, “Hey don’t believe me. You’ve never heard of me. Just try it. I’ll give it to you free.”

Enabling, encouraging people, even forcing people to try the thing and getting people to realize that it is better, is a great way for resource-constrained entrepreneurs to face incumbents. 

Greathouse: As a Professor, how do you balance your time between performing academic research and translating academic research into entertaining and edifying books? 

Berger: I’ve learned a lot from speaking and consulting. My life changed a lot since I wrote Contagious. I used to mostly do research and teach. Now I spend a decent chunk of time doing speaking and consulting and I feel like there’s a really nice flow of ideas back and forth. I often learn a lot from working with companies, everything from big, Fortune 500’s, like the Googles and the Apples of the world, to small startups that I then take it back into my teaching. I even come up with research ideas from consulting often, that have turned into projects, and the same the other way around. Sometimes teaching makes me realize, “Hey, there’s an interesting concept that I think hasn’t been described well – maybe there could be a book on it.” So, when these things work well, there’s a really nice flow back and forth between academia and popular press stuff.

 Greathouse: The U.S. is going through a volatile time, with the pandemic. If you’re up for it, I’d like to hear your thoughts regarding what you saw as effective and ineffective measures to encourage Americans to radically change their behaviors and engage in social distancing, especially during the early days of the pandemic. 

Berger: A few months ago I wrote a piece in HBR just about this (How To Persuade People To Change Their Behavior). I think a lot of the language around, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, was telling people what not to do. “Don’t go out. Don’t do this. Stay-at-home, wear a mask…” And while telling people what to do seems like a really effective approach, it often doesn’t work, because it generates reactants, just like I talked about in the book.

When you tell somebody not to do something, it makes them more likely to do it even if it was something they wouldn’t have done already. “Well maybe I wouldn’t want to go out by myself, but now you’re telling me not to, maybe I should do it then.”

I talked a lot about applying the tips from the book to those situations. If you want people not to go out, rather than telling them, “Don’t do that,” say, “OK, would you want your elderly grandparent going out?” “What about your kids or younger brother and sister? If you wouldn’t feel safe about them doing it, then why would you do it?” You’re not telling them what to do, but using questions and highlighting a gap as a way to encourage the desired behaviors.

Greathouse: I’m sure you have several compelling books mapped out in your head. What other areas of influence and persuasion do you intend to tackle in future books?

Berger: A lot of the research that I’m doing at the moment is on natural language processing, sort of using machine learning and textual tools to extract behavioral insights from textual data. Everything from the language a customer service agent uses that makes customers more satisfied, to the language of song lyrics or movie scripts that makes songs become popular or movies succeed. Even looking at what generates longer reads – how we write articles which encourage reading versus not. Maybe someday we’ll write a book on those topics, though I’m certainly not yet there at the moment.

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

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